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Ramping Up Renewable Energy

How NOS is helping boost offshore wind energy in the US

Wind energy turbines

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project is designed to demonstrate a grid-connected, 12-megawatt offshore wind test facility about 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. Credit: Stephen Boutwell/BOEM

Two years ago, there were no offshore wind farms in U.S. federal waters. Now, there are two farms, with a total of seven turbines in federal waters, producing roughly 32 megawatts of energy. These numbers are about to get a lot higher. The first two commercial-scale offshore wind projects, which will produce around 900 megawatts of energy, are both under construction. The U.S. government aims to deploy 30 gigawatts of wind energy production in federal waters by 2030. The National Ocean Service (NOS) is helping the nation achieve this goal.

Collaborating closely with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), wind energy developers, the marine transportation industry, commercial fishing professionals, and local communities, NOAA is helping ensure that the nation can increase wind energy production while protecting marine life, ecosystems, communities, and the blue economy. NOS provides data and tools to BOEM to help them choose sites, evaluate potential impacts, and maintain accurate ocean data in offshore wind energy areas.

Picking the Right Spot

In addition to the obvious requirement for offshore wind farm locations — sufficient wind — many other factors go into choosing sites. The goal is to choose a spot that will provide the most energy, but that will not interfere with other ocean uses. BOEM is responsible for choosing which areas of U.S. waters to lease to offshore wind developers. NOS provides BOEM with the data and information to help make these decisions possible.

Consider all the ways humans use the ocean: recreation, commercial fishing, marine transportation, and other activities. By collecting data on how and where humans are using the ocean, BOEM can select areas for offshore wind energy development that have the least impact on other uses. NOS provides essential information on ocean use. MarineCadastre.gov, a NOAA and BOEM joint initiative, helps users consolidate and visualize that information. BOEM can use all this data to try to select lease areas for offshore wind development that avoid fertile fishing grounds, recreation spots, protected areas, and high-traffic shipping routes.

But humans are not the only ones using the ocean. NOS provides critical data to BOEM on the habitats and marine life in (or migrating through) potential wind energy areas. NOS’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science maps habitats and species distributions and develops comprehensive marine spatial models of ecosystems. These models tell us where certain species and ecosystems are found, making it easier to choose sites where there will be fewer negative impacts. BOEM uses these models to help select areas for leasing and development. NOS and NOAA Fisheries both provide BOEM with data on which species live in areas being considered for offshore wind leases, from protected species, to marine birds, to deep-sea corals.

A NOAA science diver conducts a habitat survey

An NOS science diver conducts a habitat survey.

Once BOEM has identified and leased specific areas, often hundreds of nautical square miles in area, wind energy developers use NOS data to help zero in on the best places to put wind turbines. NOS’s Office of Coast Survey provides hydrographic data and nautical charts that indicate basic information such as water depths and the location of hazards to avoid, like shipwrecks. But this data also shows the topography of the seafloor. When integrated with other NOS data, such as habitat maps, it can tell us which areas have hard seafloor ideal for turbine installation, and which areas have fish habitats, corals, or seabed features that may make installation difficult.

Wind energy developers use other NOAA data to help place and position wind turbines, including surface winds and weather forecasts. NOS data on maritime navigation and port operations is also critical during the construction phase of offshore wind farm development.

Sharing Data and Understanding Impacts

To create a successful offshore wind industry in the United States, it’s essential to understand the impacts of offshore wind development on coastal communities and marine ecosystems.

NOS conducts social science research to help BOEM engage with coastal communities to understand their perceptions and concerns about offshore shore wind energy. This research helps BOEM understand the potential impacts of offshore wind energy development, especially to minority and low-income communities in coastal areas. It also advises BOEM how to engage with all parts of coastal communities to address the concerns of residents and those whose livelihoods depend upon ocean resources.

NOS is also collaborating, both with BOEM and directly with offshore wind developers, to maintain accurate oceanographic data in offshore wind areas. A recent agreement with a major offshore wind developer will help integrate ocean observation equipment into wind farms. The plan for this pilot project is to cooperate on design, implementation, and data-sharing, providing benefits to the public, federal agencies, and the energy developer. We also have an agreement in place where wind energy developers share their data with NOAA, filling gaps in ocean science, mapping, and observing. The data will tell us about air and water quality, emissions, ecosystems in the area, currents and waves, physical oceanographic and hydrographic data, and weather.

We know that some of NOAA’s scientific observations could be affected by offshore wind turbines. It’s critical to address this issue so that we continue to provide accurate observations and research. One key source of ocean observing data is high frequency radars, which measure ocean waves and surface currents. This data is used for a variety of critical tasks, from U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue operations, to oil and chemical spill response, to safe marine navigation. The data from these instruments needs to be accurate, but these radars are particularly sensitive to interference from wind turbines. BOEM and NOS’s U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System have developed software that helps “correct” the data to account for this interference, and efforts are ongoing to improve these techniques.

As the U.S. offshore wind energy industry continues to expand and grow, NOS is working with private, local, and federal partners to help identify the best sites for wind farms and turbines, engage with the community about the project, and maintain accurate ocean data after installation.